There are many things I remember about flying the F-4. I think that the single most enjoyable F-4 experience that I loved was four ship formation take offs. The mission started with the briefing that typically began two hours before the scheduled take off time. During the briefing the flight leader would describe the procedure for starting engines, radio check-in, time to remove the chocks and begin to taxi, how to line up the four airplanes to taxi to the arming area in formation and the procedures for the actual formation take off. Mission briefings lasted 45 – 60 minutes after which the aircrews would make a pit stop then slip on G suits and parachute harnesses and board the truck to be delivered to their designated F-4.
After arriving at the airplane we went through the checklists as we inspected the outside of the airplane and then the cockpit inspections and before engine start checklist. My recollection is that we usually started engines at 20 minutes before our scheduled take off time. After starting engines and doing the flight control checks the flight leader would make a radio call that started with the flight’s call sign. For example, if the call sign was “Lark” the flight leader would say “Lark check.” Then each member of the flight would check in and we would all hear “2, 3, 4″ on our radios. The flight leader then asked ground control for permission to taxi to the runway. After getting approval from ground control to taxi each airplane would add power and head for the marshaling area, which was the area on the taxi way designated by the flight commander in the briefing where the four airplanes would join into taxi formation.
I always felt a great sense of pride as my powerful flying machine started to move because at that time the crew chief standing on the left side of the airplane would come to attention and salute. I returned the salute. I appreciated the hard work the crew chiefs performed to keep our F-4s in top flying condition.
Yes, we taxied in formation to the arming area at the end of the runway. The flight leader would have his left or right main gear on the taxi line as we taxied in formation to the end of the runway. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 would be in order behind the leader in staggered position. If the leader had his right main gear on the taxi line then 2 and 4 would have their left main gears on the taxi line and 3 would have his right main gear on the taxi line. Each pilot maintained the briefed distance behind the F-4 in front of his airplane so that the distance between each airplane would be the same.
We were professionals who took pride in the smallest thing. We taxied to the end of the runway like we were the Thunderbirds performing before a large crowd. I was very proud to be in formation with three other F-4s as we taxied to the end of the runway. We always stopped in the arming area at the approach end of the runway so that ground crews could button up all the doors, check the exterior of the airplane and arm any ordinance. All four airplanes would be parked in the arming area line abreast in order, i.e., 1, 2, 3 and 4. When ground personnel finished arming our ordinance and doing the before take off checks it was time for the four airplanes to take the runway.
The flight leader in #1 would look at #2 who would look at #3 who would look at #4. When #4 was ready to take the runway, the aircraft commander, i.e., the guy in the front seat, would nod his head, which caused #3 to nod his head, which caused #2 to nod his head. Three head nods meant that all three wingmen were ready to depart the arming area and move into position on the end of the active runway.
The flight lead’s backseater would then tap his helmet, which caused #2′s backseater then #3′s backseater to tap their helmets. #4 watched #3 who watched #2 who watched #1. Next the flight leader’s backseater would put his head back, which caused #2′s backseater and#3′s backseater to put their heads back. When #1′s backseater moved his helmet forward #2′s backseater did the same and number #3′s backseater followed #2′s head move. The helmet forward move was the signal to put the canopies down. The end result of all of this was that all the canopies of all four backseaters were closed at the same time.
Once the backseaters canopies were down, the frontseaters repeated the same procedure. The flight leader could have simply said on the radio “backseaters put your canopies down on the count of three then said 1, 2, 3, which would have caused all four backseat canopies to close in unison. However, we were professionals who took pride in little things like doing things at the same time without using the radio.
When all the canopies were closed and the tower gave us clearance to go onto the active runway the flight leader would add some power and taxi to the runway while the three wingmen followed in order. The flight leader would stop short on the end of the runway with his right main gear on the centerline. #2 would pull into close formation just to the left of #1. The element leader in #3 would pull into close formation on the right side of #1 with his left main gear on the centerline. #4 would pull into close formation with #3 on his right wing. Once stopped in take off position all four airplanes were in close “finger tip” formation.
Each crew then went over the before takeoff checklist and prepared to make a formation take off. When the flight leader was ready he would get a head nod from #2 and #3 after he got a head nod from #4. Four head nods was the signal that all four airplanes were ready to begin the formation take off.
The flight leader would then put his head back, which was the pre-release brakes signal. When the flight leader moved his helmet forward that was the signal to #2 to move the throttles forward and release brakes. #1 and #2 would then begin their take off roll side by side. #2′s job was to stay in fingertip formation while accelerating. Shortly after becoming airborne the flight leader would nod his head, which was the signal to bring the landing gear up. Shortly thereafter the flight leader would nod his head again, which was he signal to bring the flaps up. After crossing the end of the runway the first element would climb and start a left or right turn to allow the second element to join in a four ship fingertip formation.
My favorite position was #4 in the second element. I will never forget my excitement as I watched #1 and #2 begin their take off rolls. I had a great view of the exhaust end of the two Phantoms and the flames from four afterburners. I also enjoyed feeling the jet blast wash over my airplane. The jet blast caused the airplane to jiggle and shake.
I loved rolling down the runway with my wingtip ten feet from the wingtip of the other airplane. It is very exhilarating to go from a dead stop to 450 knots in a few seconds while maintaining close formation with the other airplane in my element. After getting airborne and putting the flaps and gear up I could see the first element higher above me in a climbing turn. My element leader would cut across the circle and join up with #1 and #2 and we would have four Phantoms in close finger-tip formation as we climbed and began our mission for that day.
I also loved formation landings, but that is a story for another day.